On the Usefulness of (Heather Mac Donald’s) Bad Ideas


I went to a conservative Mennonite Brethren college where the dominant theology was — and officially remains — that homosexual activity is a sin. Despite the official view, a Bible professor of mine brought to campus a pair of gay men, Christians if I recall correctly, to talk about how they squared their lives with scripture.

It was an interesting hour, and in retrospect I admire those two men for braving what they knew would be a deeply hostile audience. (Particularly at the time, in the early 1990s, when the fear of AIDS added an additional layer of anger and terror to the topic.) I don’t remember specifics of the discussion that day, though I’m sure I can guess what the arguments were. I do remember, though, that it was a highly emotional day.

One more thing I remember: A sense that day that many of my classmates (and, to be honest, probably myself) regarded the encounter as a debate to be won, rather than contemplating this possibility: That beyond who could best cite and wield scriptures, there were actual, real lives to be contended with. It was one of a series of events in college that shaped me into who I am today: Quasi-agnostic, firmly liberal, and ardently gay-loving.

I don’t want to suggest that hearing gay men express the truth of their lives is the same as letting racists come to campus to spew ugly ideas. But I do want to suggest that a good education can and does occasionally include exposure to ideas that we regard as utterly incorrect. Not just because our minds will be changed, as happened in my case. There are several reasons.

Let me back up and preface those reasons with this: We agree that Heather Mac Donald is the purveyor of bad ideas that promote the glorification and empowerment of cops and often, nearly always, do so at the expense of minorities. We differ a little bit, though, in one aspect: I’m very frustrated with campus leftists who have tried to shut down her talks at colleges; you wonder why a college would invite Mac Donald to speak in the first place.

And I recognize that your objections are grounded in rigor, compassion, and a deadly low tolerance for bullshit. You ask: How many times do Black Lives Activists and their supporters have to say “Black Lives Matter… They matter here!”—as was chanted during the Q & A after MacDonald presented her thesis that the criminal justice system isn’t racist and that “America does not have an incarceration problem; it has a crime problem”—before Claremont McKenna decides that its students don’t have to put up with such stupidity on their campus?” I love the concern, the love for students, and the love of high academic standards that are all mixed up in that question.

And it’s a good question. Let me parse my answer carefully. I don’t think a good education requires a college to invite Heather Mac Donald to speak. But if a college — or a student-led club therein, which is often the case in these matters — chooses to bring her to campus, I believe it can be of some use.

Three reasons:

Even bad ideas are worthy of scrutiny. Here’s my best example of this, Rebecca: Your own career.

Your book, “God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right,” examines Westboro Baptist Church and its place in American theological traditions. Westboro’s ideas are awful and ugly and disreputable — even churches that can be honestly described as “anti-gay” want no part of the Phelps clan. You examined the ideas closely, and you spent a fair amount of time with the Phelpses to boot. That was painful, I’m guessing. But the work is valuable. It wasn’t accomplished by turning away.

So one way to respond to Heather Mac Donald is to protest. Another is to treat her as an opportunity to study. What does she believe? What are the antecedents for the belief? Put her in context. That context, I think, reveals how small and shallow her ideas are.

Because we too easily believe in our own righteousness. All of us are prone to confirmation bias, “the tendency people have to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them.” Sometimes the best way to test our own ideas is to temper them against the hard edge of contrary belief, even beliefs that — at first blush — we might consider foolish. Where better to do such testing than in college?

Understand: I don’t think I’m suddenly going to find Heather Mac Donald persuasive. But the exercise of testing my beliefs against hers can be a valuable one. They can sharpen my ideas and arguments, or at least help me anticipate the objections to my own ideas and be ready with an answer.

The first two reasons are too light and ephemeral, admittedly. Mac Donald’s ideas have real-world consequences, cause real-world pain. Why burden our students with that pain? The real-world answer?

The spread of bad ideas doesn’t stop at campus borders. Heather Mac Donald earns a living doing what she does because A) there’s enough of an audience for it and B) a portion of that audience is willing to pay for it. And judging by the November 2016 voting results, there are plenty of Americans who believe the kinds of things she believes to shift the balance of power in this country. The ideas that count don’t always stand up to peer review, but they must be contended with nonetheless.

I’m sorry for students of color who have to put up with this bullshit. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have to argue for your rights, your very being as a human. It’s unfair. And it’s easy for me, because I’m a white guy, to talk about good and bad ideas when mostly it’s theory to me — I’m unlikely to endure a stop-and-frisking anytime soon.

But the bullshit is out there. It is widespread. It is powerful. How many times do BLM supporters have to say “Black Lives Matter?” There’s no limit. There probably never will be. There will always be people who subscribe to notions we believe are mistaken, and so the work of pushing back never, ever ends. That’s not fair, but that’s the way it is. So our colleges and universities might as well equip students to do that work.

I wrote elsewhere recently: “Free speech requires forbearance from us, as well as persistence. It means we must counter bad speech with more speech, then do it again, then again and again, long after it seems to us the argument has been settled. And we do it because we want the same forbearance extended to us.”

Again, I don’t think it’s necessary that colleges and universities welcome bad ideas into their midst. But I can see the use of it. And in any case, I still think the proper response when Mac Donald ventures onto your campus is not to try and prevent her voice from being heard. Instead, make your own heard. And be ready to prove your ideas are better. Drowning out the voice of our opponents does not furnish such proof. It looks, in fact, like weakness.

I’ll let you have the last word in this thread. Thanks for hearing me out.



Dear DNC: Change or Die.


Did you get a survey from the Democratic National Committee lately? The DNC sent me a survey today, and I was so enthusiastic about responding that I filled it out right away and drove it over the the post office for late afternoon pick up. I know my thoughts matter to them (I’m just sure that Debbie Wasserman Shultz and Donna Perez were reading my blog all last summer and fall!) Sure, it’s a push poll and a fundraising attempt, but it’s less crass than that GOP poll circulating a few weeks ago, so that’s something. And since they are paying for the return postage, I felt compelled to fill it out.

At the end, they asked for money (of course), but since I think my money would be better spent in a thousand other ways, including buying cigarettes for a bum or starting a fire in my fireplace this cold March day, I declined. I did, though, offer some specific ways that the DNC could win me back:

Fight like you want to win. It’s politics, not a second grade tetherball championship. Even lifelong Democrats think you are wimps. Yes, Kellyanne Conway is probably demon-possessed and she’s unusually talented and bold at riling up racism, but this isn’t new. Did you think that DT wasn’t going to lie, cheat, and steal his way as far as he could go? Of course Russia was going to interfere, voting machines were going to mysteriously break down, and voting among black and brown people was going to be suppressed. Or, to say it differently, nominees get security details because they are likely to face assassination attempts–don’t ask secret service agents to risk their lives protecting candidates when you won’t even protect Michigan, a state in which the Republican governor allowed his own people to be poisoned.

Need inspiration, dear DNC? Perhaps this scene of gratuitous violence from Road House will help. Yes, I want you to rip out the GOP’s trachea. Okay, not literally. But if you expect me to wear a pussy hat and march in the street, I expect you to go to Congress and throw sand in the gears of Republican efforts every single day. This includes the Neal Gorsuch nomination, you pathetic bunch of Neville Chamberlains. Note: I’m calling you that because you are LITERALLY allowing Nazi sympathizers into our government. 

Stop relying on voters of color without doing anything to serve their interests. Conway was clear about strategy: publicly reject people of color in order to energize white voters ranging from colorblind racists to white nationalist extremists. The GOP has seldom been clearer in its hostility to people of color. Instead of coddling undecided whites, energize the reliable base of people of color by addressing their needs and sharing power with them. Suggestions: districts where their votes matter, access to voting booths, potable water, a public beatdown of the Nazi sympathizers in Trump’s clown car, support from HBCU that turn out so many black professionals, and support for the amazing entrepreneurial activities of people of color, including immigrants. Those are the easy things, the ones that won’t scare off moderate Dems. The party also needs to support radical prison reform, radical changes to policing, the abolishment of the death penalty, and incredible investment in minority-majority public schools. Sure, the GOP has deliberately shut out voters of color, but that doesn’t mean that the Democrats don’t need to earn their vote. And as touching as it is to say that these issues are all our issues (It’s true! Racism hurts us all. We’re stronger together!), Democrats need to be explicit that the point of addressing racism isn’t to make white liberals feel better: it’s because racism hurts people of color and only white people can make that stop.

Support senior leadership’s transition to retirement and cultivate new voices.  Demographically speaking, Baby Boomers are going to hold our society hostage to for another 20 years, so the DNC is going to have to force some folks to step aside. On the one hand, I love that the two major candidates this year were both past the traditional age of retirement; HRC’s nomination was all the sweeter because she experienced the kind of sexist barriers to success that younger women don’t seem to believe existed. And, to be clear, this isn’t an argument about their “stamina” or “health”–just code words for agism and ableism. On the other, the DNC is missing out on the chance to develop and support new talent.

Being a politician of the Baby Boomer cohort doesn’t mean you have to support the neoliberal agenda that has left so much of America in a “sea of despair,” but if you want to move forward, you need to understand how the policies of the late 80s, 90s, and Oughts contributed to our current suffering.

Jobs. Yes, Trump was lying when he promised to bring back coal and manufacturing, and you’d have to be dope to believe him. But it was a narrative that worked to win coveted votes in western PA and eastern Ohio. (Odd how the votes of this region are coveted but, since the death of John Murtha, little actually gets done to improve life there.) The reason why the counterevidence–that Obama prevented a Depression, that his masterfully brought us out of the Great Recession, that life is better, economically speaking, than it was 8 years prior–was also kind of a lie. Sure, not technically, but few of us felt it was true, which is what matters in politics. More importantly, lots of voters–the precious white working class but also people of color–saw the big wins go to the top 1% and saw their own economic status continue to slide. When Clinton uttered lies similar to Trump’s–about rebuilding manufacturing, for example–voters had no reason to believe her because Democrats have failed working class and poor voters. It’s time to talk about the wonders, not just the anxieties, of automation and how, if we adapt, we can free people to use their talents in ways that enrich life, not just in ways that produce garbage. Take economic anxieties seriously by providing a vision of the future, not nostalgia about coal mining, for crying out loud.

Support pro-life candidates in states where they will win. As more states enact laws aimed at restricting the right to and access to abortion, Democrats need to be honest with themselves: most people support a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy under some conditions, but most don’t support it under all conditions--and younger voters oppose abortion in what Democrats might see as surprisingly high numbers and with surprising intensity.  Trump, despite the fact his claims to be prolife are laughable, won some voters who were otherwise repulsed by his candidacy simply on this issue. In lots of states, prolife candidates are the only ones who are going to win. A pro-life Democrat in office is better than a pro-life Republican. (See Fight Like You Want to Winabove.) If pro-life Democrats could win in places like Louisiana, Mississippi, or Kansas, they could then make the case for other Democratic priorities–things voters in these states might want but can’t make happen because they won’t vote for a pro-choice candidate.

Is this throwing women under the bus? Only if you think that women are better off being governed by Republican pro-life politicians than Democratic ones.

rep gov.png

Above, a map of the US illustrating which states are fully controlled by Republicans (25) and which have a Democratic governor facing a veto-proof Republican majority (2). In contrast, just eight states are controlled by Democrats or have a enough Democrats in the state legislature to prevent veto a Republican governor. The map comes from Daily Kos

Give me a candidate without the baggage. Joel supported HRC in the primaries, and I supported Sanders. Sure, Joel was probably making the grown up decision, but maybe that is because he gets to work with grownups who generally see government as a respectable enterprise. I study conservatives, right-wingers, and extremists who see it as a cosmic battle and who vote in very high numbers. They were going to hate any Democrat coming their way, but they actually think that Clinton is Satanic. So I didn’t see much hope of any of them moving to the Democrats–and much opportunity for Trump to rouse them to vote (as he did during the primary). Though Clinton won a near-record number of votes, lots of us were lukewarm about her.

Key here is that some of Trump’s supporters LIKE his misogyny and history of sexual assault. Each time Clinton pressed on these (and they things that outraged decent people and should have, in a world run by grown-ups, disqualified Trump), Deplorables laughed. They want a man who will “grab ’em by the pussy” because they hate women and they like sexism. Trump’s sexually predatory behavior rallied some of his troops and wasn’t enough for others to abandon him (Jason Chaffetz, you buffoon, if your daughter doesn’t abandon you in the worst nursing home she can find in your old age because of your exploitation of her, you should consider yourself lucky)–but it was very hard for many Democrats to argue against such low character while also making the case that Bill Clinton should once again be housed in the White House. No, we weren’t voting on Bill. No, it’s not fair the Hillary is judged on her husband’s behavior. But I’d carry pepper spray around any slime ball with either Trump or Bill Clinton’s history.

dnc letter


What do you want Democrats to know? Share your ideas by sending the DNC mail at 430 South Capitol Street SE, PO Box 96585, Washington DC 20077-7242. If you are represented by a Democrat, be sure to contact them at their local offices and attend their town meetings. And make sure you let them know that you’ll be canvassing for and voting for the most progressive primary candidate in the next election. 

Now that we’ve sat with the debacle of the election, the failure of the Electoral College to do its job of preventing unqualified people from achieving office, and the first months of a Trump administration, what do you wish Democratic party leadership would do?

Why is Heather MacDonald Still Talking? A Case Study in Lazy White Campus Speakers


We both love the First Amendment, you as a journalist, me as a hate studies and religious scholar, and probably both of us as people who sometimes like to share unpopular opinions.

Which is why I remind you that the First Amendment doesn’t guarantee Heather MacDonald’s right to spout racist nonsense at a private college. It guarantees her the right to create a platform and to use it to speak, not to stand on someone else’s platform, without government interference.  She can write (another) manuscript about how police officers are mistreated (Her newest, The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe, is a new screed on an old theme for her. She released Are Cops Racist? How the War against the Police Harms Black Americans in 2003. From the subtitles, you might get the impression that she really cares people of color.), but no one has to publish it. She can stand in a public space and say just about anything she likes, but no one has to offer her an invitation into the space that they own.  That Claremont McKenna College chose to invite her is a stain on them.

This does not mean, though, that, if she is invited, she should be shouted down. Like you, I’m a believer that more speech, not censorship, is the answer to hateful speech. I love to see students responding to deplorable words and ideas by arguing for something better, and I actively work with students who are opposing hate speech on campus in efforts to do just that.  Turning MacDonald’s race baiting, fear mongering, and flirtations with fascism into an opportunity to develop new research, argumentation, and presentation is a great way for students to practice skills we desperately need in the public sphere.

But what happens when students have already done that? When the burden of doing that work falls so heavily (again) on people of color? How many times do Black Lives Activists and their supporters have to say “Black Lives Matter… They matter here!”—as was chanted during the Q & A after MacDonald presented her thesis that the criminal justice system isn’t racist and that “America does not have an incarceration problem; it has a crime problem”—before Claremont McKenna decides that its students don’t have to put up with such stupidity on their campus?

The issue, as I see it, isn’t whether the college has the right to invite her; they do. But in doing so, they make clear to their students that 1) creating a campus where students can learn free from racism does not matter and 2) faulty logic, lousy data, lazy research, and a thesis in defense of the status quo somehow comprise “scholarship” worth listening to.

Both of those issues are important. Claremont McKenna shouldn’t have invited MacDonald because she had to make a lousy argument in order to draw her wrong, racist conclusion.


Above, a flyer advertising a speech by MacDonald. Professional tip for campus speakers: If your argument is factual, informed, honest, accurate, logical, and intellectually rigorous, it’s never going to end up being racist.

Consider it this way: Should a black student have to hear an argument that we know is measurably incorrect and that foments further hostility toward black people? How can anyone argue against teaching about white privilege while simultaneously teaching stereotypes of black people? (Answer: Because they are racist and also unbothered by facts.) How does permitting speech that isolates and alienates people who have historically been shut out of higher ed further the mission of higher education? When you are a black student at a predominantly white institution, why should you have to rally against what is clearly a lousy argument? The fact that you even have to do this bullshit work is a bit racist. A second-class white intellectual gets a platform to blow racist hot air, and you have to be the one to call her out? Even when white allies join the fight, it places black people, once again, as the source of the trouble. Why should any student have to listen to an argument that vilifies black people? What harms are caused when such arguments appear on campus with the stamp of university approval? (When such arguments appear on the public sidewalks, the story is different. And there, we are pretty much okay with counterpicketers shouting people down.)

But the racism is only part of my problem with MacDonald. The other part is my problem with universities inviting lazy thinkers to campus. MacDonald is a right-wing intellectual star, but that’s because the conservative galaxy is so generally dim. She seems to me to be one of what Elspeth Reeves, writing about the alt-right, calls “a handful of vain writers impressed by their own intellectual power because few smart people bother to debate them.”

MacDonald’s ideas are of little value, and campuses should not invest precious resources—and absorb opportunity costs—in creating a platform for them. In responding to the protest on campus, Claremont McKenna president Hiram Chodosh appealed to the idea that campuses should be places where challenging ideas can be freely exchanged [Italics mine]:

[T]he breach of our freedoms to listen to views that challenge us and to engage in dialogue about matters of controversy is a serious, ongoing concern we must address effectively.

This is a rather generous view of MacDonald’s writing.

College students deserve better opportunities to engage across lines of difference. And if there is no one out there who can draw the same racist conclusions that MacDonald draws using a better argument, maybe it means that colleges, which should value argumentation, don’t really need to invite racists to campus.


‘Illegal Immigration’ is About to Be More Illegal


You recently noted that the term “illegal immigration” can be something of a misnomer:

But, actually, simply being here without proper documentation is a violation of the law punishable by civil, not criminal, penalties. Improper entry—coming into the US when you don’t have the proper authority to do so (swimming the Rio Grande, scaling the stupid wall we already have)—is a criminal offense punishable by up to 6 months in a jail and a small fine. To be found guilty of improper entry, the state has to show evidence beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt that you entered improperly—just like with other crimes. Unlawful presence is also a violation of federal law—but it’s a civil offense, not a criminal one. When Americans travel abroad and overstay their visas, we often address this with a bribe.* When visitors to the US are not presently here lawfully, we can deport them—but that doesn’t make them criminals.

About that…

This morning, Attorney General Jeff Sessions visited the US-Mexico border in Nogales, Arizona to announce a new get-tough approach to immigration enforcement, directing federal prosecutors to pursue harsher charges against undocumented immigrants. “For those that continue to seek improper and illegal entry into this country,” Sessions said, “be forewarned: This is a new era. This is the Trump era.”

In his remarks, Sessions said nonviolent immigrants who enter the country illegally for a second time will no longer be charged with a misdemeanor but a felony. He also recommended that prosecutors charge “criminal aliens” with document fraud and aggravated identity theft, which carries a two-year minimum sentence. In January, President Donald Trump expanded the definition of which immigrants can be considered “criminal” to include anyone who has committed “a chargeable criminal offense,” which could include sneaking across the border.

I’ve mentioned before that immigration law falls into a weird area where crime is concerned — somebody stabbing another person is something we can all identify as a trespass, but breaking immigration law means you’ve violated standards that a quorum of legislators decided upon one time, and from which there might’ve been some serious dissent. It’s a crime in the same sense that barbering without a license might understood to be a crime: Maybe it’s not, really.

This is even weirder. Jeff Sessions has decided, apparently on his own — certainly without the input of Congress — that entering the United States is not just a crime but a felonious crime, akin in the federal system of laws to bank robbery or taking a kidnapped person across state lines. It’s a bureaucratic change — not a change in the severity of the actual offense — that will nonetheless have real consequences in the lives of real people.

This might be less objectionable if Sessions — and the president he serves — didn’t continually conflate undocumented immigration with worse, real crimes.

As he proposed stiffer penalties for nonviolent immigrants, Sessions also targeted gangs and cartels “that turn cities and suburbs into war zones, that rape and kill innocent citizens and who profit by smuggling poison and other human beings across our borders.” Invoking unusually severe language in the written version of his announcement, Sessions proclaimed, “It is here, on this sliver of land, where we first take our stand against this filth.”

But as Mother Jones notes: “In contrast to the dire picture Sessions painted, crime rates in American border cities have been dropping for at least five years. Even after a year of increased violent crime—which officials said had nothing to do with cartels or spillover violence—El Paso, Texas, is among the safest of its size in the nation.”

We’re going to send people to prison for the crime of believing in the promise of this country. And we’re going to do it on the basis of a lie. I hate the Trump Era.

— Joel

Brandishing Black Bodies to Defend Against Racism


I’ve used this space to occasionally praise unorthodox conservatives. So let me now mention a conservative whose ideas I really, really dislike.

Her name is Heather Mac Donald. She writes a lot for City Journal. And she writes, mostly, about how cops are awesome and how criticism of cops is bad. (Her recent book is called “The War on Cops.”)  I’m oversimplifying here, but not by much.

Anyway, I’m torn. I hate Heather Mac Donald’s ideas. But I think she has the right to express them. And last week, we watched as campus protesters at Claremont McKenna College tried to prevent her from being heard. Which forces me to … rush to Heather Mac Donald’s defense.

Here’s the short version, which I’ve expressed before: A mob can violate the right to speak just as surely as a government agent with a warrant. The best solution to bad speech is more speech, better speech. These are concepts that liberals have long defended, and should keep defending!

I suspect you and I have a bit to quibble with there, but trust me: You’ll like my defense of Mac Donald more than you’ll like Mac Donald’s defense of herself.

Which goes something like this:

I prefaced my speech by observing that I had heard chants for the last two hours that “black lives matter.” I therefore hoped that the protesters were equally fervent in expressing their outrage when five-year-old Aaron Shannon, Jr., was killed on Halloween 2010 in South-Central Los Angeles, while proudly showing off his Spiderman costume.  … And though it was doubtful that any of the protesters outside had ever lost a loved one to a drive-by shooting, if such a tragedy ever did happen, the first thing he or she would do is call the police.

Oh, for Pete’s sake. There’s few things I hate worse than the brandishing of black bodies as a defense against police brutality against blacks. And Mac Donald does it here expertly. So let’s make a few things clear

First: The existence of crime in no way mitigates the responsibility of police to act lawfully

Second: The existence of crime in no way mitigates the right of communities and individuals to petition their government for a redress of grievances.

Third: This “but what about black-on-black” murders is a typical, loathsome evasion of the issue of police brutality questions. It implies, in racist fashion, that black people don’t care about black lives unless there’s a white person to blame for the death. And that’s crap.

Let’s talk about the Aaron Shannon case, for example. In fact, there was a substantial community response to and outcry against his death. AP reported contemporaneously:

Immediately after the shooting, at least a half-dozen city-funded gang interventionists, experts who are often former gang members, and other volunteers hit the streets in a bid to prevent retaliation.

Residents incensed by the killing of a child were quick to provide details to police, who Friday announced the arrests of Marcus Denson, 18, and Leonard Hall, 21. Both are alleged members of the Kitchen Crips, which for years has been warring with a subset of the Bloods known as the Swans.

Deputy Chief Patrick Gannon estimated as many as 15 additional shootings were stopped.

This doesn’t even mention the $75,000 reward the community managed to put forth to get the killers arrested. All in all, a robust community response. One that Mac Donald surely would’ve known about if she’d done even middling research on her topic. (I found it with  a quick Google search.)

Maybe she did. But her use of Aaron Johnson indicates to me she’s mostly willing to brandish black bodies — not even as a defense against allegations of brutal, racist policing, but as a deflection against it. And it strikes me there’s something profane about using the dead body of a five-year-old black child as a bit of rhetorical jiu-jitsu.

Which is why it might be easy for me to throw in with the people who tried to prevent her from being heard, I guess. But I also believe free expression is made especially for expressions we find objectionable. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Heather Mac Donald’s right to express her views should be protected. But those views are still tripe. I can and do believe both things.

— Joel


Hurting for Mamie Till, Hurting like Carolyn Bryant

Have you read Scott Russell Sanders’ “The Men We Carry in Our Minds”? The essay begins with a conversation between Sanders and a friend, a woman named Anneka. He remarks to her, “This must be a hard time to be a woman…. They have so many paths to choose from, and so many voices calling them.” Her reply–that she feels bad for men–surprises him. She explains: “The women I know feel excited, innocent, like crusaders in a just cause. The men I know are eaten up with guilt.” I’m wondering who these men Anneka hangs out with are as she tells Sanders, “I wouldn’t be a man for anything. It’s much easier being the victim. All the victim has to do is break free. The persecutor has to live with his past.”

The rest of the essay unpacks that, considering class in a way that makes the essay very teachable to poor white students who struggle to understand intersectionality, but it’s that line about how being the victim is easier than being the perpetrator that has stuck with me. I don’t think it’s true–I’d rather have your $1 than my 77 cents, and I suppose black people would like to be the ones living longer, wealthier, healthier, and safer–but I get the point. Of course, we suffer moral injury when we hurt others, but this isn’t just about a person’s individual past but our collective pasts, not just the history of your family or mine but of the white people to whom we are related if not through genes then through inherited privilege.

What we do with those histories is one question. What we aren’t allowed to do with them is another, and that’s the one you focus on with the example of Dana Schultz’s painting of Emmett Till in his casket. Protesters have blocked the painting from view, and some African American artists have called for the painting by Schultz, a white woman, to be removed from the Whitney and destroyed. (I had to pay careful attention to my own immediate response to the call for the destruction of the painting. It was, not surprisingly, a big “F-Off, Liberal Fascists.” Then I had to think about what I would need to feel in order to want to destroy a piece of artwork, for me to overcome my love of free speech. If I assume that Schultz’s protesters also love the First Amendment, then what do they have to be suffering in order to throw it aside?)


Above, a photo of Mamie Till crying over the casket of her son, 14-year-old Emmett, who was murdered by two white men after being accused of whistling at the wife of one of them. Both men were acquitted of the murder by an all-white jury and later admitted to committing the crime.

Schultz was kind, if a bit naive, in her response. She said:  “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America but I do know what it is like to be a mother. Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son. The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension. Their pain is your pain. My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother.”

But, of course, Mamie Till wasn’t just a mother; she was a black mother to a black son. How close can a white woman who mothers a white son be to a black woman who mothers a black son? Is that answer different today than it was in the summer of 1955 when Emmett Till was murdered? Can her pain belong to anyone but her? If so, how far beyond black motherhood can it travel?

Art helps us bridge our differences, which is why fascists hate it and why kids who read Harry Potter are more empathetic than those who don’t. But, of course, we have to walk across the bridge it provides, too, exercising what Michael Eric Dyson calls our “civic imagination” and doing what you call “empathetic shovel-work.”

We will never do it perfectly, because our experiences do not correspond perfectly with the experiences of other people, and we can’t always guess which of our differences may matter. We can only be gentle in our efforts to understand, hoping that others will gracious in accepting our attempts but also recognizing that we may be forestalled. And when our efforts–as white people trying to get the hang of this–are rejected, we need to respect that it could be that those who are rejecting us are smart not to trust us.

That might sound discouraging for white people trying to address their history of hate, but there is good news. You don’t have to have the same experience as someone or someone else to right; you don’t even have to feel empathy to do right. You don’t have to have daughters to think sexual assault against women is wrong. You don’t have to have a child to cry for Emmett Till or Alan Kurdi–or to oppose racial violence, war, and oppression.

It’s actually pretty easy to feel for Mamie Till. The harder work for white people is to own up to feeling like JW Milam, Roy Bryant, and Carolyn Bryant, to turn our eyes away from Till’s body, as rendered in photographs and painting, and to turn them toward ourselves, our own histories, and our own complicity, today, in actions and systems that kill black children.


Yesterday, the Jackson, Mississippi Clarion-Ledger reported that the Justice Department is considering reopening the Emmett Till case. In his last days in office, President Obama signed an expansion of the Emmett Till Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act of 2016, which authorizes the FBI to investigate Civil Rights cold cases. White people should, of course, cheer this on–while remembering that we are the reason these crimes happened.

To learn more about the life of Emmett Till, consider engaging the Emmett Till Memory Project.

the-blood-of-emmett-till-9781476714844_hrAbove, The Blood of Emmett Till, released this winter, includes testimony from Carolyn Bryant that she lied when she said the teenage Till made sexual advances toward her.

On the appropriateness of appropriation


So far we’ve spent our time on this blog talking about three things: Christianity, race, and feminism. Which is kind of funny — and kind of not — because, well, I’m white, male, and agnostic-ish.*

* It’s complicated.

I’m aware that I bring my white guyness to these topics, but I’ve tried not to be white guyish about it. Which is to say: I’m aware there are big gaps in my experience and outlook when I address these topics. Sometimes I even choose to remain silent on them.

But not always, clearly.

I do think my white guyness requires me to approach these issues with a degree of humility, a willingness to drop my defensiveness, and — above all — knowing when it is time to shut up and listen. I am probably not always successful at that. But I still think about these things, and writing in a public forum is one of the ways I do my thinking.

To put it another way: I’m aware these conversations have been going on a long time, that there’s been a tendency among white guys to grab the advantage by diminishing the personhood of non-white guys at the table. That’s wrong. So punch me in the face if you catch me doing that.

All of this might be a prelude to that face-punching. I’ve been troubled by the reception to a piece of art, made by a white woman, depicting Emmett Till in his coffin. Here’s NYMag on the controversy:

At the opening of the 2017 Whitney Biennial, protesters blocked the painting from view, and over two dozen black artists signed an open letter requesting the painting be removed and destroyed because it co-opted black pain with a white gaze.

The artist, Dana Schutz, has pushed back, albeit gently. She said:  “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America but I do know what it is like to be a mother. Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son. The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension. Their pain is your pain. My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother.” She added: “Art can be a space for empathy, a vehicle for connection.”

So here’s where I have to tread cautiously.

There’s part of me that’s sympathetic to the protesters. (Not to their demand the painting be destroyed; that’s a quasi-fascist impulse that I’ll object to every time.) Over America’s lifetime, white people have made a practice of taking and breaking black bodies, taking and breaking black dignity, taking and breaking black culture. (We even have a new example this week thanks to Pepsi Cola.)

And yet…

As I mentioned recently, I’ve been reading Michael Eric Dyson’s “Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America.” It is indeed a sermon, and I fear that it mostly preaches to the converted — those whites who are willing to accept that America’s poisonous racial dynamic is carried out on their behalf, is at least partly their responsibility.

Dyson counsels his readers:

“Whiteness must shed its posture of competence, its will to omniscience, its belief in its goodness and purity, and then walk a mile or two in the boots of blackness. The siege of hate will not end until white folk imagine themselves as black folk—vulnerable despite our virtues. If enough of you, one by one, exercises your civic imagination, and puts yourself in the shoes of your black brothers and sisters, you might develop a democratic impatience for injustice, for the cruel disregard of black life, for the careless indifference to our plight.”

It seems to me that if we white people are to get over ourselves, we have to do a lot of this empathetic shovel-work. For an artist like Schutz, wrestling with the most horrible images of America’s history is the way she does that work.

Is it “appropriating” an experience to engage it and wrestle with it the way Schutz has done? If it is, how is culture — which often thrives on remixing two different things into a brand new thing — supposed to work? Is our responsibility to avoid or engage? And who gets to decide it?

To me, the Pepsi ad looks very different from Schutz’s painting — probably because the Pepsi ad is trying to sell me something, and worse, is trying to sell me something that’s pretty useless. But I think, from what I read, see, and hear, there are some people who see both things as equivalent.

At The Atlantic, Jonathan Blanks offers this advice:

Slavery is America’s Original Sin, and the racism that evolved to perpetuate it is an inextricable part of our social fabric. Whenever any artist tries to confront that, they inherently invite expressions of the often chaotic, almost inarticulable pain that exists as a part of black experience in America. I think the artist must deal with the resulting legitimate criticism and dismiss the illegitimate criticism as they come. The key is knowing enough about your subject in the first place to distinguish between the two.

That … sounds right? It means that people like Schutz and people like me have a lot of work to do — a lot. A lot of shutting up, a lot of listening and reading and listening some more — and then, just when we think we’ve got our shit together, go back and do all of that some more.

We don’t get to casually engage. We don’t get to blithely believe in our own good intentions. We don’t get to not listen. And we really don’t get to take somebody else’s experience and present it as our own. Having done due diligence, having been cautious, there’s still a chance we’ll get it wrong.

My own solution to this? Keep walking — but walk humbly. There will still, inevitably, be stumbles along the way.

What do you think?

— Joel